Word of the Day – “überlegen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll look at the meaning of

überlegen

 

Überlegen is a fairly important word that you get to hear often in daily conversation. And yet, it kind of flies under the radar of many learners of German. Because for each of its three meanings, there’s another, more “obvious” translation.
Oh and yes, I just said three meanings.  But don’t worry, they’re all kind of about thought in a way. It can be to ponder, to decide and to make up.
But we can’t just plug in überlegen as a synonym because of its slightly complicated grammar.
Yeah, I know you’re now like “Wow, that’s gonna be my new favorite word… NOT.”
But seriously… people use überlegen a lot and it’ll make you sound much more like a native speaker, so let’s have a look at what it means and how to use it.

Überlegen consist of two parts – the basic verb legen and the prefix über. Legen basically means to lay (or to put, in a broader sense) and the prefix über carries the idea of above.
So if we take it literally, we get something like laying, putting over. 
And indeed, überlegen can mean that.

  • Ich lege mir eine Decke über.
  • I put a blanket over myself (lit.)

As you can see, the prefix is at the end here, so it’s a separable verb. This use super rare though and you can trust me that you won’t need this one.
What we need is the inseparable überlegen. And the big, overarching theme that all the translations have in common is

thinking

Now you’re probably like “What the hell… how does that tie in with laying over?”
And that’s an excellent question, that actually got nominated for the “Outstanding Questions Award 2020”.
It won’t win though, because all we need to answer it is the verb to cover.
You see, covering is kind of laying something over, right?
But covering is also used in context with topics for example. And when you cover a topic, what do you cover it with?
Exactly, with thoughts. Tadah!
So it makes perfect sense that überlegen is about thinking. Or.. maybe not perfect sense, but at least it’s not super random crazy.
Anyway, so now that we have the basic theme, let’s get to the actual uses and translations and there, we can distinguish between a bare überlegen on the one hand and sich überlegen with a serving of self reference – for extra complication :).
Let’s start with the bare one.

überlegen

Überlegen without anything (nerds  would call it intransitive), means to think.
It’s not as broad as to think, though.
Überlegen is NOT the philosophical kind of thinking. That would be denken.

  • Ich denke, also bin ich.
  • I think therefore I am.

And überlegen is also NOT to think as in to believe or to reckon. Once again, denken or, maybe even better, glauben are the words you need.

  • Ich denke, das ist schon ganz ok so.
  • I think that IS about okay that way.
  • Was glaubst du, wer du bist? (sounds always negative)
  • Who do you think you are?

So what kind of thinking IS überlegen?
It is to think in a sense of searching your mind for a result.

  • “How can we fit our infinite abundance of beachwear into our trunk.”
    “That’s tough. Let’s think.”
  • “Wie kriegen wir unsere schier unendliche Fülle an Strandbekleidung in den Kofferraum?”
    “Oh das ist nicht einfach. Mal überlegen.”
    (this example was brought to you by… Random & Weird™)

Now some of you may be like “But Emanuel, what about nachdenken?”
And indeed, überlegen and nachdenken are fairly close in meaning.

  • Let me think
  • Lass mich mal nachdenken /überlegen

However, there are two big difference between the nachdenken and überlegen.
The first one is grammatical. Nachdenken can take an object, so you can nachdenken about something or someone. This does NOT work with überlegen. Überlegen cannot take an object, it can only take an action.

  • I think about the movie.
  • Ich überlege über den Film.
  • Ich denke über den Film nach.
  • “Do you want to go to the movies with us today?
    “I’ll think about it.”
  • “Ich überlege darüber.”
    “Ich denk’ drüber nach.

These are wrong and they sound really really bad with überlegen.
And here are a few examples where überlegen is prefect… it’s basically actions, particularly questions.

  • Ich überlege, wo mein Telefon ist.
  • I think about where my phone is ( if that makes any sense)
  • Ich überlege, wie ich am schnellsten zum Zoo komme.
  • I am thinking about what would be the fastest way to get to the zoo.
  • Ich muss mal überlegen, wann ich Zeit habe.
  • I have to think about when I’ll have time.
  • “Oh ich muss dieses Kleid einfach haben.”
    “Aber überleg‘ doch mal, was das kostet.”
  • “Oh I simply must have this dress.”
    “Think about, how much that costs, though!”

And this leads us to the second difference between nachdenken and überlegen.
We could call it the goal or the scope.
Überlegen pretty much always deals with one specific everyday question. Nachdenken on the other hand works for the “bigger” questions, too, and it can be less goal oriented than überlegen.
You cannot really überlegen “What is the purpose of our existence?” and you wouldn’t say you spent 4 hours in your chair with überlegen.

  • Ich habe in letzter Zeit viel nachgedacht.
  • I have been thinking a lot recently. (does that make sense?)

With überlegen, that sounds a bit odd. Like you have a bad memory and you spend a lot of time trying to find things in it.
Generally, we could say that überlegen is limited to mundane everyday questions.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s not common.
Quite the opposite as you can see here:

ueberlegen-vs-nachdenken

As you can see, überlegen is clearly a word worth adding to your active vocabulary.
To be fair though, more then half of the überlegens are probably on account of the other überlegen… the one with the self-referential one.
So let’s talk about that next.

Sich überlegen

And actually, this headline would be more helpful if it were mir überlegen, because the self reference with überlegen is in DATIVE.  It is to oneself rather than oneself.

  • Ich überlege mir… (not mich, mich would be doubleplusnunright)
  • Du überlegst dir...
  • Er/sie/es überlegt sich

So the person is the receiver of their own überlegen, NOT the topic. Think of it as the same concept like in to buy (oneself).

  • I bought [myself] two chocolate bars [for myself].
  • Ich habe mir 2 Schokoriegel gekauft.
  • I “überleged” something for myself.
  • Ich habe mir etwas überlegt.

And what does überlegen mean in the second sentence?
Well, it’s quite similar to the überlegen we already know, the thinking-one. Only that this time, the focus is not on the process, but on the result of the thinking. Which can be for instance a decision. That’s why it can mean to decide and that also gives us the difference to entscheiden, which also means to decide.
Sich überlegen kind of inlcudes the thought process, while entscheiden is purely focused on the result and can be done on a whim.
Here are some examples.

  • “Weißt du schon, ob du dieses Wochenende zu deiner Schwester fährst?”
    “Nee noch nich’. Das überleg’ ich mir morgen/Das entscheide ich morgen.”
  • “Do you know yet, if you are going to go visit sisters this weekend.”
    “Nah, not yet, I’ll decide tomorrow.”
  • Ich habe mir überlegt, dass ich im Sommer mal nach Italien fahren will.
  • I have (thought about and then) decided that I want to go to Italy this summer.
  • Hast du dir überlegt, ob du mit in die Oper kommst?
  • Have you decided, if you want to come with to the opera?
  • Überleg dir mal, was du heute abend essen willst!
  • Make up your mind about what you want to eat tonight!(lit.)
  • Let me know when you’ve decided what you want to eat tonight. (maybe)

The last example is kind of hard to translate without losing the tone. The German version sounds doesn’t sound pushy or offensive at all. It’s kind of nice and inviting actually.
Anyway … to decide is actually not the only translation for sich überlegen.
Another goal of thinking can be to come up something new.
And so it makes perfect sense that sich überlegen can also mean to come up with stuff.

  • Ich hab’ mir überlegt wie wir all unsere vielen Strandklamotten in den Kofferraum kriegen.
  • I’ve concocted /conceived of (ahhh…  synonyms, so nice) a plan to fit all our   and so on and so on….

Actually, let’s look at überlegen and sich überlegen back to back and see how the focus shifts from process to result.

  • Ich habe überlegt, wie ich das Problem lösen könnte.
  • I have been thinking about how I could solve the problem.
  • Ich habe mir überlegt, wie ich das Problem lösen könnte.
  • I have come up with a way to solve the problem.
  • Ich habe überlegt, wen ich zu meiner Party einlade.
  • I have been thinking who to invite to my party.
  • Ich habe mir überlegt, wen ich zu meiner Party einlade.
  • I have decided who to invite to my party.

So… having that indirect self-reference (for myself) in there changes what you do from simply thinking about the question into reaching a result by thinking about the question, be that a decision or a solution.
Let’s do one more example…

  • “Versuch mal, jeden Tag 2 Wörter zu lernen. Nur 2.”
    “Und dann, was soll das bringen?”
    “Naja, überleg mal, dann weißt du nach einem Jahr schon über 700.”
  • “Try to learn 2 words every day. Just 2.”
    “And what’s the point of that?”
    “Well, think about it, after a year you’ll know 700 already.”
  • “Ich habe zwei Karten für das Festival. Lust mitzukommen?”
    “Ach, ich weiß nich’…”
    Überleg’s dir und sag mir Bescheid.”
  • “I got 2 tickets for that festival. Wanne come with?”
    “Pfff, I don’t know…”
    “Well, think about it and let me know.”

So in the first example the speaker wants the other person to think about the whole scenario for a second (not for day, that would be nachdenken then), while in the second dialog, the person wants a decision.

I’m sure some of you feel a little anxious right now by all this grammar and the nuances. You probably will forget most of the details like one hour after reading this. But that’s okay! You will encounter it in daily life and then you’ll be like “Hey, I think I understand.”
What really matters is that you remember that (sich) überlegen is about a thought process in daily life… sometimes just the thinking, sometimes with a decision or idea. But the base is always the same.

Cool.
Now, before we wrap up, let’s quickly mention that überlegen can also be an adjective at times. Then, it means superior.

  • Thomas fühlt sich Maria geistig überlegen.
  • As far as brain smarts are concerned, Thomas feel like he is superior to Maria when it comes to brain smarts.
  • Das Team war seinem Gegner in allen Belangen überlegen.
  • The team was superior to its opponent in all respects.

And of course, as any language that is spoken by real people, we do have more superior in German. It is used very often in context of sports.

  • Die überlegenere Mannschaft hat gewonnen.
  • The more superior team won.

Some people say that the comparative überlegender shouldn’t be a thing, and the same goes for more superior. But I don’t really have an opinion about that
(pssst… I actually do, I think it’s fine, but I can’t say that because I’m a “teacher”;))

Cool… now, let me überlegen if that is all… hmmmm… yes, I think it is. So we’re done for today. This was our word of the day überlegen. It is thinking about the everyday questions of life and when you add a mir or dir or that kind of stuff, it turns into decide or come up with. It is a word you’ll definitely hear people say. Should you use it too? Well, überleg’s dir :).
If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

further reading:

 Word of the Day – “nachdenken”

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Caitlin
Caitlin
3 months ago

For the example of deciding what to eat and keeping with the nice and inviting tone, I (native English speaker in my late 20s from Australia) would usually use “have a think”: “Have a think about what you what to eat tonight!” If you wanted to emphasise the result you could add “and let me know” at the end. To me this doesn’t sound pushy or offensive at all.

Anyway, thanks for the great article! Very interesting as always.

Albert Dascalu
Albert Dascalu
11 months ago

Can it also mean to wonder like in: “Ich überlege mal, wie ich eine solche (so für eine?) Vorstellungskraft haben kann” ? I think about = I wonder in some contexts?

mucharabu
mucharabu
1 year ago

Perfect! I hadn’t thought to look up this word but I’ve been hearing it A LOT (especially from my teacher when he explains Grammatik lol) and I was wondering about it (ich hab’ es überlegt!) – this actually helps me to know how/when to use it!

Favourite article so far (weird to say I know)

AmyPond
AmyPond
3 years ago

Könntest du mir sagen – was ist der Unterschied zwischen “entscheiden” und “sich entscheiden?” Danke!

AmyPond
AmyPond
3 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Das hilft mir. Danke!

Gena
Gena
3 years ago

I have taken a different definition of ‘überlegen’ that is ‘to consider’. I think it is more appropriate & applicable to your sentences..

nieuemma
nieuemma
3 years ago

I love it. “Hast du dir überlegt, ob du mit in die Oper kommst?” Can totally be understood in English as “Have you thought about…” instead of “Have you decided…” and that makes me very happy.

Samsubahree
Samsubahree
3 years ago

I’ve found there’s another word similar to überlegen such as ausdenken. Both words seem to have similar expression of coming up and thinking about something. May I ask what differences they are to each other?

Jason Joel Bustos
Jason Joel Bustos
3 years ago

Dude, your articles are super helpful. Many thanks.

MichaelVG
MichaelVG
4 years ago

Re „work out“ and „sich überlegen“—I think „figure out“ fits better, since the former does have that sense of labor being involved. „Figure out“ *can* carry that but doesn’t have to. The semantic territory of „figure out“ is much wider, very flexible phrase and only partly overlaps here (other meanings of the phrase are closer to rausfinden, rausbekommen, but has other meanings too) but I think it fits. „Did you figure out what you want for dinner?“ This implies you’ve been thinking about it, considering the issue in order to make a decision.

But the other English phrase would probably just be „have you thought about [what you want for dinner]?“ Depending on context and tone, this can definitely imply an expectation that the asker is expecting a decision. (Though if you want to be a smart-ass or just buy time you can still answer with something like, „I’ve thought about it, but I’m not sure yet…“)

(Sorry for hilarious German quotation style…)

Helena Gouveia
4 years ago

I honestly think your explanations are way too long … =/

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago

“Ich habe zwei Karten für das Festival. Lust mitzukommen?” “Ach, ich weiß nich’…” “Überleg’s dir und sag mir Bescheid.”

My final question! Is there any explanation somewhere about why and when you can add the ‘s to the end of some verbs. In the case ‘Überleg’s dir’? Thank you

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago

Would you say that ‘sich überlegen’ is a little less definite or should be taken slightly less serious than ‘sich entschieden’. For example, if you ‘sich überlegen’ that you want to go to Italy that summer, there is less chance that you will go than if you had ‘sich entscheiden’.

cruthers
cruthers
8 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Sir! In the comment above you translate:
Ich habe mir überlegt, diesen Sommer nach Italien zu gehen.”
as: “I thought about going to Italy this summer.” (i.e. not completely decided)

But in the article you translate:
Ich habe mir überlegt, dass ich im Sommer mal nach Italien fahren will.”
as: “I have (thought about and then) decided that I want to go to Italy this summer.” (i.e. completely decided)

I’m not sure I understand why one way of saying it is more decisive than the other (if that distinction is one that you indeed wanted to make)… is it the “dass” construction vs. the “zu” construction that changes things? Thanks.

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago

“Do you know yet, if you are going to go visit sisters this weekend.”

The grammar is incorrect here. Maybe it’s obvious and I shouldn’t bother writing, but on the chance it is helpful, I offer a correction:

“Do you know yet, whether you’re going to go visit your sister this weekend?”

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago

In , you said that überlegen would not work:
“Willst du heute mit ins Kino kommen?”
“Ich denk’ drüber nach.

But in this example, you’ve used überlegen:
Hast du dir überlegt, ob du mit in die Oper kommst?

I don’t really understand the difference between content which allows the second example to work with überlegen and the first not. Could you please explain?

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

However, there are 2 big difference between the nachdenken and überlegen. The first one is a grammatical difference. You can nachdenken about a thing. This does NOT work with überlegen. Überlegen cannot take an object, it can only take an action. Here’s what I mean:

I think about the movie.
Ich denke über den Film nach.

“Do you want to go to the movies with us today?
“I’ll think about it.”
“Willst du heute mit ins Kino kommen?”
“Ich denk’ drüber nach.

Neither of the examples works with überlegen because we are thinking about things.

I didn’t really think that thinking about whether or not to go to the movies was a thing but that’s what you kinda implied when I read it. I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. Thanks for your response.

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Yes, I think that’s the same conclusion I kind of reached, that the question (“Willst du heute mit ins Kino kommen?”) once asked, becomes a thing – a thing that can be thought about – a question is a noun. However, although you can’t use darüber oder über die Frage with überlegen, there are a couple of other phrases like ‘ich überlege noch’ or ‘lass mich überlegen’ or ‘ich überlege, ob ich kann oder nicht’ usw. which do work. Meaning, it is not the content but rather where/how I want to emphasise or focus my thought that determines whether I use überlegen oder etw. nachdenken.

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago

What is the ‘an’ in your example below? I feel like it should be ‘von’ or that there should be nothing there and Strandbekleidung should be in genetiv. In this use, can ‘an’ be translated as ‘of’?

“Wie kriegen wir unsere schier unendliche Fülle an Strandbekleidung in den Kofferraum?”
“Oh das ist nicht einfach. Mal überlegen.”

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That’s really helpful to know. thank you for the fast response

alanmarsee
alanmarsee
5 years ago

What is a strong link opposed to a weak link when it comes to überlegen?

a.n.onymous
a.n.onymous
6 years ago

Re. earlier comments about using German in English car adverts: the advertising slogan for Audi in the UK used to be (and maybe still is?) “Vorsprung durch Technik”, untranslated. According to wikipedia, this slogan was actually used *everywhere but* the United States.

alanmarsee
alanmarsee
5 years ago
Reply to  a.n.onymous

Ist Usedom heute in South Korea.

alanmarsee
alanmarsee
5 years ago
Reply to  alanmarsee

Sorry, my German keyboard was turned on. It’s used here in South Korea.

alexviajero
alexviajero
7 years ago

PS. I also meant to mention that in another version of this same Chrysler ad, when the driver realizes he is not on the Autobahn, but on an American Interstate, he says “Verdammt!” But the subtitled translation says “dang it!” because “damn it” is even too strong to say on American broadcast TV (as opposed to pay TV like HBO, where it would be ok)… Yikes!

alexviajero
alexviajero
7 years ago

Hi Emanuel: You’re absolutely right — it is daring to make an ad where Americans actually have to read subtitles, because we’re notoriously lazy about that, and most Americans won’t even watch a great movie if it is subtitled (but that is a whole other rant of mine ;-)). But, in this case, I have no doubts that the vast majority of viewers instantly know that it is German being spoken, even before the word “Autobahn” appears. “Quality cars = German engineering” is just on of those things we all just know. 25 years ago, a Volkswagen ad campaign introduced us to the word “Fahrvergnügen.” The idea was that Germans make driving their cars such a uniquely wonderful experience, that they actually have a single word to capture “the ecstasy of driving,” unlike in English. But even then, the ad was in English except for that word! This Chrysler commercial has been shown repeatedly during the football games leading up to the Superbowl (where a 30-second commercial on TV for that show costs the sponsor over a million dollars, since it is by far the most-watched live TV program in the States, and hence, reaches the largest audience of captivated viewers of any other annual televised event). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOnne-90CLI And yes, with few exceptions, the notion is that “it’s not a German car, but it’s pretty good FOR AN AMERICAN car.” Haha. So, Chrysler, very much made in America, is saying “this is America’s import” as sort of an ironic play on that idea, that since a fantastic car can only be an “import”, this car is so good we can call it ‘America’s import’, even though it is clearly made right here in the good ole USA. It is just that good! (As an aside, American politicians like to make a point that they are just average Americans, who drive American cars, and not German imports like most wealthier citizens. Two years ago, Mitt Romney, who was being harmed in his campaign because he was so rich and out of touch with average Americans, tried to connect to voters by casually saying that American cars were excellent — in fact, his “wife has a couple of Cadillacs”! Of course, this backfired, because though Cadillacs are made by General Motors, they are the most expensive model, and surely most Americans cannot afford to have not only one, but two! Hahaha.) We have the same silly warnings on products now here too, (the disclaimers) and such. When you buy a product, like a pillow, that is wrapped in a plastic bag, the tag will have the warning, “Caution — do not let children play with the bag — they could suffocate”. Duh! By the way, you mentioned you don’t have a car. That is a much-discussed new cultural trend in the US now too. In my youth (I’m 55), ALL boys and young men LOVED cars. The most obsessed boys in high school were called “gear-heads.” You had groups or cliques in… Read more »

alexviajero
alexviajero
7 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

I would venture to say that almost ALL viewers instantly understand the play on words using “import” referring to this car. There is zero confusion. In this case of usage, the opposite of “import” is not “export” it is “domestic.” No one would think that everything made in America is an American import (they would say, a domestic car.) So, when we talk about products, they are either imports or domestic products. Because the “made in America” and “buy American” are still very strong marketing strategies, the only industry that could get away with this trick, calling something “America’s Import,” is the car industry. Why? Because everyone, including the Big 3 auto manufacturers (GM, Ford, Chrysler), knows that the products they produced in the 1970s and 1980s WERE garbage. All other major products can use the “buy American” slogan with a straight face, because most American products are in fact high quality. And for the last 20 or so years, so are American-made cars. But, there is that legacy from the 70s-80s where cars were built very poorly and most consumers were very dissatisfied with those cars. (In fact, when I see movies made today, that supposedly take place in the 70s or 80s, I often wonder where the producers found all those cars for the background sets, because frankly, there are very few American cars built in that time period that are still around. They are all in garbage dumps or have been used for scrap metal. Period movies from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s have a much easier time of it, because those WERE classic American cars and there are many collectors of those [I have a restored 1966 Ford Mustang – let me know and I’ll give you the YouTube link to it if you’re interested in seeing it]. However, no one wants the crappy cars that were produced in the two decades or so prior to the 1990s.) This is why Chrysler can get away with calling something an “import”, even an “American Import” and make it sound appealing. They are effectively admitting that they sold a bad product for many years, and that it was justified that Americans would want imported cars, but now that has changed, so try “America’s Import”. It is a smart, clever marketing choice, and not complicated in this country to American ears at all. As for “car culture”, it is a part of the fabric in this country. In fact, though most major cities EAST of the Mississippi, have good urban public transportation options, the only city in America that does not have a car culture is New York City – where many people even my age have never had a car or a license. I now live in Washington DC, which also has excellent public transportation, but still almost everyone has and uses a car (the exception being younger people who as I mentioned earlier, seem to be happy with only public transportation). This is not explained by costs… Read more »

alexviajero
alexviajero
7 years ago

This is a new Chrysler car ad (link below) airing regularly now on TV (especially during the current football playoffs). It sort of reinforces the American insecurities that our cars are inferior to the “Gold Standard,” which everyone knows are German-built cars (and rightfully so!). Anyway, they use the term “überlegene” which translates to “superior” in this ad, just as you describe in your second definition. Anyway, I laugh every time I see this ad and thought you might get a kick out of it… check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHmA_L61Rb0